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Opinion

Gabrielle Giffords and NRA are both right about one thing: US culture of violence

Gabrielle Giffords made a compelling plea at the Senate hearings on gun control today, but the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre is also partly right: Banning guns won’t address a pervasive culture of violence that doesn't distinguish between real and virtual violence.

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Despite a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2011, which protected commercial video games as free speech, the Newtown massacre has renewed debate in the Congress and White House over what, if anything, should – or can – be done to regulate the $60 billion video game industry, the largest media business in the world.

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To his credit, President Obama recently ordered more federal research on possible links between violent video games and real-life violence, and asked Congress to fund it. But he declined to take stronger action.

Two weeks ago, Vice President Joe Biden, who had earlier expressed concern about violent video games, suddenly backed down, after intense lobbying pressure from the industry. He and others seem to have accepted the industry's position that the research linking violent video games to real violence is too "inconclusive" to justify new legislative action.  

The industry is fond of saying that no one has yet been able to prove that a specific act of violence was "caused" by someone playing a video game.  However, that's like my claiming that cars don't contribute to global warming, because no one has proved that my own SUV has caused the glaciers on Kilimanjaro to melt. The sources of climate change, and of violence, are in fact multiple. Video games may not cause violence on their own, but they contribute to a culture of violence by modeling antisocial acts and diminishing players' empathic response to others.

They also promote a virulent militarism that subordinates democratic and civic values to a culture of war-making. And here, perhaps, lies the rub. A cynic might ask whether a deliberative body that routinely authorizes billions of dollars for real-world weapons, real-life wars that in just the last decade have left more than 100,000 real people, not virtual ones, dead, is terribly likely to go after an industry that spreads only make-believe violence.

Let us give our elected representatives the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they would. Even so, it is not far-fetched to ask whether our representatives' reluctance to rein in the industry might not stem, at least in part, from their tacit appreciation of how deeply entwined cultures of symbolic violence now are with our national identity and self-understanding as a great military power.

Yet a nation that lives by the sword dies by it, and it matters less and less whether that sword is virtual or real. So long as America continues socializing its young people in a culture of violence and war, whether in video games or in military campaigns abroad, we are unlikely to see an end to tragedies like Newtown or Aurora.

John Sanbonmatsu teaches a course on the Philosophy and Ethics of Video Games at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he is associate professor of philosophy.

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